An F-35 Lightning II has endured extreme weather temperatures to certify the capability of the Joint Strike Fighter to deploy to any place of the world.
An F-35B, a STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter jet, from the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force in Maryland has undergone extreme weather testing at the U.S. Air Force 96th Test Wing’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida according to a release by Lockheed Martin.
The testing is aimed to validate the capability of the plane to operate in the meteorological conditions representative of all the locations from which the aircraft is going to operate: from the Australian Outback and the U.S. deserts, to the Arctic Circle, above Canada and Norway.
The F-35B has been ferried to Eglin AFB in September 2014 and it is expected to remain at the airbase in Florida until March 2015: a six month assessment of the Joint Strike Fighter’s performance in wind, solar radiation, fog, humidity, rain intrusion/ingestion, freezing rain, icing cloud, icing build-up, vortex icing and snow.
According to F-35 test pilot Billie Flynn, the aircraft is being pushed to its environmental limits, ranging from 120 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to – 40 degrees Celsius) and so far it has met expectations.
The press release comes few weeks after an Air Force press release, reported that fuel trucks at Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, where temperature can reach beyond 110° F (43° C) in summer months, were given a new look, by applying a two layer coating, dubbed “solar polyurethane enamel”, in order to prevent fuel stored in the tanks from over-heating: the Lightning II engine has a fuel temperature threshold and may suffer shutdowns if the fuel is delivered to it at high temperature.
Image credit:Michael D. Jackson, F–35 Integrated Test Force
The aircraft, known as AU-2, was flown on its 90-minute transit from Lockheed Martin’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to Luke by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Todd “Torch” LaFortune. It was then assigned to the 56th Fighter Wing, that already operated a fleet of 17 F-35s.
The arrival of AU-2 at Luke AFB marks the first of 10 international partners starting training in the US. The second F-35A for Australia, designated AU-1, is scheduled to arrive at Luke Air Force Base in the next few days.
The RAAF is expected to operate 72 such multi-role planes from two airfields, Williamtown, in New South Wales, and Tindal, in the Northern Territory, along with the current fleet of Australian F/A-18F Super Hornet (some of those are deployed in the UAE to support U.S. led campaign against ISIS) and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.
According to Lockheed Martin the U.S. Air Force granted a consent to start mass production of the extended range variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, also known as AGM-158B.
The JASSM-ER has successfully completed the USAF program of Initial Operational Test and Evaluation. Out of 21 launches, 20 were successful. USAF plans to acquire 100 ER variant missiles within Lot 11 and 12, specified by the contract signed in Dec. 2013.
According to Lockheed Martin, more than 1500 examples have been produced so far. Target quantity to be delivered to the USAF is 4,900 missiles.
Lockheed Martin stated that the decision undertaken by the U.S. Air Force means that the flying branch is confident the new missiles can provide an effective first-strike capability in dense air defense environments.
AGM-158B JASSM-ER missile is capable of striking targets at ranges of at least 925 kilometers (ca. 500 miles), and it is armed with a dual-mode penetrator equipped with a blast-fragmentation warhead.
The missile itself has been designed, similarly as the A variant, with stealth features. Missile uses two-mode GPS/Infra-Red guidance system, which contributes to its precision strike capabilities.
So far, solely the B-1B bombers possess a capability of using the ER variant of the missile. The basic version, the AGM-158A, can be dropped by B-2s, B-52s, F-16s and F-15Es. However, back in April this year press releases by USAF suggested that JASSM-ER is to be also integrated with F-15E, F-16 and B-52H fleets.
Whilst Australia and Finland use the A-variant of the missile with their F/A-18 Hornets, the baseline JASSM is also to be procured soon by the Polish Air Force for the F-16 Block 52+ planes.
As explained earlier this year, the Polish deal, a bit expensive at the first sight (with 40 missiles worth about $250 million), should also include a modernization bundle for the Polish Air Force F-16 fighters.
The Polish Vipers are to be upgraded up to the M6.5 standard, in order to facilitate use of the new weapons system. The upgrade includes modification in the avionics to improve Link-16 data exchange system and IFF capabilities, the update of the AIDEWS defensive suite, as well as modernization of the Sniper targeting pods. Nevertheless, a larger Mid-Life Update program should be undertaken by the fleet in the next few years, according to the Polish media outlet Dziennik Zbrojny.
According to the official information released by the Polish Ministry of Defense, Minister Tomasz Siemoniak expressed the Poland’s will to procure the ER variant as well even though it is yet unclear whether the M6.5 upgrade would provide the Polish Vipers with the -ER capability in advance.
Poland has signed Letter of Acceptance, regarding procurement of the first 40 missiles on Dec. 11. 2014 at Krzesiny AB, near Poznan.
The agreement falls within the US Foreign Military Sales program and the first deliveries are to take place in the second half of 2016. One additional missile is to be delivered for test firing purposes. Initial Operational Capability is planned to be achieved by 2017, as the F-16 modernization program is to be started in the 2nd half of 2016, at a pace of 2 fighters per month.
The JASSM-ER can be considered to be a strategic weapon, so it will most probably boost Poland and NATO’s deterrence capabilities in eastern Europe: will it be an effective deterrent? Hard to say. For sure, the air-launched cruise missiles are not the only measure the Polish Armed Forces are acquiring at the moment to face the Russian threat. There are additional programs, including the procurement of NSM (Naval Strike Missile) systems.
Secondly, as one of The Aviationist readers pointed out, the M6.5 upgrade for the F-16 fighters may mean that they would be capable of using the AIM-120D air-to-air missiles that have been reserved exclusively for the USAF so far.
These missiles may provide a significant boost of the Polish Viper’s air-to-air capabilities, which would be implemented in the shadow of JASSM deal, but this claim has not been officially confirmed. The Air Force has already stated that it analyses potential implementation of new armament that may be used by the Viper thanks to the envisaged upgrades.
Lastly, as Polish MoD Secretary of State said the use of the JASSM missiles will not be externally limited by the US Authorities. This means that Poland will be free to use the missiles at its own will, if needed.
Air Force fuel trucks repainted to keep temperature within the F-35’s threshold.
According to an Air Force press release, the F-35 jets may face another issue.
The problem is not related to the jet itself, but to the fuel trucks thermal management: the Lightning II has a fuel temperature threshold and may not function properly if the fuel is delivered to the aircraft at high temperature. Should the temperature of the fuel get too high, the F-35 could face engine shutdowns.
Therefore trucks at Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, where temperature can reach beyond 110° F (43° C) in summer months, were given a new look, by applying a two layer coating, dubbed “solar polyurethane enamel”, that will help prevent fuel stored in the tanks from over-heating.
However, the professionals providing the new coating of the trucks, said that the layer does not necessarily need to be white, since only the “reflective” coating is of white color. Additional green paint may be applied in order to add camouflage. Some of the Luke AFB specialists stated that this is still to be tested.
Nevertheless, the ground crew hope that the green color can be used again, keeping the temperatures down, since the white refueling trucks are visible at long distances.
White color is a definitely an intermediary-short term fix, mainly due to the tactical deficiencies it brings along. Long-term solutions?
The Air Force may change the composition of the fuel used by the Lightnings.
Another option is to refine the software used by the engine. Cost-wise, both these options are more expensive than re-painting the fuel trucks, which, as the Air Force claims, costs $3,900 per truck.
In the light of the more significant problems faced by the F-35 program, the fuel issue might just simply have been overlooked.
Nonetheless, as some analysts pointed out, it may add an overhead in terms of cost, management, procedures etc. meaning that the development of the F-35 would become a bit more expensive (and this would not be a good news).
“Dummy” weapons (identical in shape and weight to the original ones) were tested during 9 flights in different configurations of both weapons types on two F-35Bs, flown by Billie Flynn, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 test pilot and Squadron Leader Andy Edgell from the RAF.
According to the team, which included personnel from BAE Systems, “the initial tests are an important step in integrating weapons onto the F-35B, allowing test pilots to understand how they affect the way the aircraft performs and handles.”
Such tests are the first step towards full interoperability of the two weapons, already used by the Royal Air Force on its existing fleet, with the F-35B, destined to enter in UK’s active service, with both the RAF and Royal Navy by 2018.
As already highlighted in the past, whilst carrying significant payload on external wing pylons makes the JSF more “convincing” as a multi-role platform, it makes the plane much less stealthy as well.